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The wild camel (Camelus ferus) is a critically endangered animal that resides in very remote and inhospitable areas of Mongolia and parts of China adjacent or in the Gobi Desert. There are approximately 660 surviving in China and 350 in Mongolia with numbers declining each year due to environmental and human pressures. Scientists at the Institute of Population Genetics at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Vienna have recently confirmed the wild camel to be a separate species from the domestic two-humped Bactrian (Camelus bactrianus) or single-humped Dromedary (Camelus dromedarius) camels.

The Gobi Desert is one of the world’s largest deserts, stretching across North Central Asia in southeast Mongolia and northern China. This great stony desert consists of a series of shallow alkaline basins situated on a plateau at an altitude between 3000 and 5000 feet. Although once an ancient inland sea basin, permanent water sources in the Gobi are now scarce. Nearly all of the topsoil has been blown away by the prevailing northwestern winds and the landscape varies from mountainous to stony plains with sparse vegetation and vast areas of flat parched desert devoid of vegetation. The Gashun Gobi in China is particularly harsh and served as the Chinese nuclear test site for 45 years because people cannot live there. Amazingly, the wild camels not only survived 43 aerial nuclear tests but have bred naturally without apparent effects. In this hostile environment, the wild camels have adapted to drinking salt water slush because of the scarcity of fresh water, intriguing scientists about how the camels eliminate the salt and use the water. Domestic Bactrian camels will not drink salt water and this adaptation to saline fluid is unique among large terrestrial animals.

wildcamel1This journey was undertaken to join John Hare, a colleague in The Explorers Club, who is the founder of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation (WCPF) dedicated to preserving these unusual animals. The Mongolian Ministry of Nature and the Environment supports the work of the Foundation and has made land available in a protected area in the South Gobi, a suitable habitat for the wild camel. With this mandate, the WCPF established a wild camel captive breeding program in 2004 with an embryo transfer program under the guidance of scientists experienced in camel breeding programs in Dubai and Kenya. Furthermore, with Chinese government support, the WCPF also has been able to establish the 65,000 square kilometer Arjin Shan Lop Nur Nature Reserve to protect these remnant herds.

We were to join a group of international scientists gathering DNA samples and other data. The DNA samples have been used to determine the camel lineage and to ensure that the camels in the breeding program are pure wild camels.

John is a very articulate, absolutely entertaining British naturalist who is highly passionate about the wild camel since he became one of the first westerners to visit this remote area in search of them. As with many explorers, John became intrigued with exploration at an early age but became more engaged after mustering out of the British Army. He applied for a foreign civil service position and was hired with the caveat that his job would soon become obsolete because of the impending independence of many colonies. But he took the job and was posted to northern Nigeria where he set up small communities as the sole representative of the British government. He spent two years there with no communication, presiding over weddings, intertribal disputes, development of education, and other affairs of state. He saw no white person and had no communication with his superiors for six months at a time.

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At the time Nigeria became independent in 1960, John was so well liked that he was asked by the fledgling state to remain and assist with the transition which he did for two years. Following his discharge from the civil service, he worked for the United Nations and wrote 32 books for African schools among his other duties. In 1993, John joined a Russian scientific expedition planning to go to the Gobi Desert. The Russian expedition leader was alarmed when he discovered John had no formal scientific training but decided he would become the “wild camel expert” for the expedition based on John’s experience riding domesticated Dromedary camels in Africa. Wild camels were known to exist in the Gobi and they hoped to collect information about them. Thus began his passion for these intriguing creatures.

John Hare has some amazing and truly harrowing stories of exploration in the godforsaken reaches of Mongolia and adjacent China. His group found buried in the sand, Tu Ying, one of the outposts of the Silk Road which had never been located. They were trapped in a desert sandstorm when their camels ran off and were very lucky to have survived. John also rode a camel across the Sahara, a story chronicled in the National Geographic Magazine. Overall, he has been on ten expeditions, seven of them on camels.

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Wild camels have been known in the area for centuries but most had dismissed them as descendants of former runaways that had established feral colonies. The wild camels breed in January when the females come into estrus, a curious biological development since that is the height of the cruel Mongolian winter where temperatures routinely register -25°F. The evolutionary benefit is that the gestation period is around 14 months so that most births occur in spring. Wild camels became known because the rejected males would seek another mate and be attracted to domestic camel herds and an occasional wild camel was captured. Wild and domestic camels do produce fertile offspring, so a concern is to maintain the genetic differentiation. For that reason, John has created a wild camel captive breeding center in the Gobi where the embryo transfer program has now been established. This also allows for closer scientific study of these fascinating beasts.

Our small group of three rendezvoused in Ulaan Baatar where Tim Dennis, a steel businessman on his first expedition, and I were met by Don Morley, another Explorers Club member and good friend who had joined me on the Titanic salvage expedition. Our minivan motored out of UB, as the Mongolian capitol is referred to, under the expert guidance of James Moreton of Panoramic Journeys, Inc., and his seasoned Mongolian driver Nyamdorj Bayantor. James proved to be an excellent traveling companion as well as first rate travel guide.

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We marveled at the driver’s skill during the three day drive through unendingly sparse landscape. The rather monotonous view was only rarely interrupted by a lone ger (octagonal Mongolian hut) with its severe isolation mitigated by solar panels and a satellite television dish. The motorcycles occasionally parked outside were used for herding livestock in addition to standard transportation. One nice deviation from the stony ground was a large lake populated by many waterfowl species. We were definitely ready for a break from driving upon our arrival at the breeding center.

After introduction to the breeding center and an opportunity to see a few of the 8 wild camels in the roughly square kilometer enclosure, we left the next morning on domestic Bactrian camels for a day and a half journey to a nearby mountain with locally-acclaimed mystical properties. We were delighted that John decided to accompany us which afforded a great opportunity to learn in depth about the wild camels and their need for preservation.

Camels are remarkable creatures which, contrary to popular opinion, are not mean towards humans if not mistreated when young. Bactrian camels were first domesticated about 4000 years ago from the remnants of herds that migrated from North America across the Bering Strait. Dromedary camels have a small second hump in their embryonic stage which does not develop further and supports the theory that the ancestors of modern camels were like Bactrians and wild camels. These animals have developed very interesting adaptations, some of which are not evident immediately. For instance, camels urinate on their back legs which serves to both cool the animal and provide some protection from the sun by forming a crust from excreted crystals.

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In addition, the camel immune system is highly developed and confers increased resistance to certain diseases. A recent discovery about the ability of camel milk to boost insulin production in Type I diabetics has stirred efforts to market camel milk as a natural product to decrease the need for injected insulin.Camels are remarkable creatures which, contrary to popular opinion, are not mean towards humans if not mistreated when young. Bactrian camels were first domesticated about 4000 years ago from the remnants of herds that migrated from North America across the Bering Strait. Dromedary camels have a small second hump in their embryonic stage which does not develop further and supports the theory that the ancestors of modern camels were like Bactrians and wild camels. These animals have developed very interesting adaptations, some of which are not evident immediately. For instance, camels urinate on their back legs which serves to both cool the animal and provide some protection from the sun by forming a crust from excreted crystals. In addition, the camel immune system is highly developed and confers increased resistance to certain diseases. A recent discovery about the ability of camel milk to boost insulin production in Type I diabetics has stirred efforts to market camel milk as a natural product to decrease the need for injected insulin.

The plight of the wild camel remains very precarious. In addition to surviving the extremes of one of the most harsh climates on earth, the recent discoveries of significant amounts of precious minerals has drawn miners to these remote areas. Miners threaten the wild camels through the use of potassium cyanide to leach gold out of the ore by forming water soluble salts from gold metal. This highly poisonous compound spoils the few water supplies jointly shared by numerous endangered species. Equally tragic is their use of dynamite to kill the camels for their meat.

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John told a fascinating story of discovering a hidden valley deep in a ravine and not found on any map coordinates or satellite photos where an unknown herd of camels existed peacefully with argali sheep and the wild Mongolian ass, two other very endangered species. Their group was astounded when coming into the valley to see the animals come to them in curiosity. They apparently had not been exposed to man. When John returned a few years later, the animals had gone and vestiges of dynamite and potassium cyanide were evident. Fortunately, the area was cleaned up and these rare animals have now returned to the valley. But the environmental pressure on the camels by the incursion of miners will continue to increase, making the work of the Wild Camel Protection Foundation to preserve land even more important for their survival. This is a great project for those of you who read this and desire to assist in preservation of species. Even small amounts of financial support go a long way toward feeding the camels in winter and furthering the great work that the WCPF champions.

After 5 days in the reserve, we boarded our trusty vehicle to returnbut not before we weathered a sudden sandstorm in our camp, driving cold rain in a 50 mph wind, a large group of very inebriated but friendly local teachers on holiday who arrived at our remote camp at the mountain, and other experiences that make great memories AFTER your return. Fortunately, Tim Dennis wildcamel7proved to be a stellar cook who made great meals with limited means, something that greatly buoyed our spirits. Our last night in camp with John was memorable for a large bonfire with singing by the Mongolians and the sharing of fermented camel milk. All people at the fire had to sing something from their country and we are still chuckling about Tim’s rendition of Ol’ Dan Tucker, an American frontier ballad.

The return trip caused some anxiety because of nearly continuous rain which threatened to strand us if we became stuck in the mud. Fortunately, the few times we became mired our driver’s skill combined with a few good pushes saw us through the worst. Thankfully the snow we encountered in the passes was not enough to impede our progress. We were indeed grateful for the hot showers, the first in many days, upon our arrival in Ulaan Baatar 3 days after leaving the breeding center.

It was then on to Hong Kong for 4 days….but that is another story….